La Traviata: the Legendary Cov
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Maria Callas (1923-1977) needs no introduction as she was quite simply one of the greatest singers of the 20th century. Any recording is of major importance and this Traviata from 1958 given in London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden is no exception. This recording drawn from private tapes has been remastered by Paul Baily using ICA's Ambient Mastering process which has enhanced and widened the sound considerably.
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This is a great pity, as there is little doubt in my mind that this performance preserves what I believe it to be by far the best souvenir we have of Callas as Violetta and for once she is properly supported by a distinguished cast. I have enthusiastically reviewed elsewhere this performance as issued on the Myto and IDIS labels; meanwhile, I'd stick with the former as the cheapest and best-sounding option, or you can go with the more expensive IDIS - but both are preferable to this one. I am not by any means against remasterings that clean up frequencies and remove hiss, and am as such a great advocate of Andrew Rose's work for Pristine. I only wish the kind of result he gets could have been achieved here.
The performance itself is a gem and is as close as we shall ever get to the-recording-that-never-was-but-should-have-been. I would add only that it would be dishonest to fail to remark that Callas' top notes are indeed occasionally a bit screamy and piercing - but they pale into insignificance when set against the depth and brilliance of her Violetta. She is in good voice and here worthily partnered; Valletti especially is in perfect voice: youthful, boyish, unaffected and impassioned. He never makes an ugly sound but there is no shortage of commitment to his Alfredo. It is true that Zanasi sounds far too young as Germont - turn to Bruscantini in the Gardelli set with Freni and Bonisolli for an authentic sounding father - and thus lacks a little authority, but he sings honestly and expressively with far more sensitivity than either the detached Sereni or the boorish Bastianini (much as I love both in other roles and recordings). He makes the transition from stiff outrage to fatherly compassion really credible and shows particularly fine control over his soft singing. Trusted friend and ally Rescigno supports Callas unobtrusively with flexible, unhurried tempi and his calm control obviously allowed the diva to feel as comfortable as possible.
There is a bit of coughing, some stage noise and the odd imbalance - but nothing untoward and the audience applause simply heightens the obvious excitement of the evening. Unlike the wretched, crumbly, live Lisbon recording, the prompter is rarely in evidence.
I shall continue to take the Myto set down from my shelves when I want to hear Callas's incomparable characterisation of Violetta in all its lacerating pity and pathos; for me, it renders the Cetra studio recording obsolete. She maintains such poise and control in key moments such as "Dite alla giovane" that it is easy to forgive the odd instance of vocal frailty - of which there are surprisingly few, in any case. For the most part, this is a master-class by the greatest exponent of a notoriously difficult role; her Violetta is an enormously subtle creation and this performance enshrines it.